By Matt Zoller Seitz.
Sunday's episode of "The Sopranos" began with the reading of a wedding invitation, then showed the bride's father, imprisoned mob boss Johnny "Sack" Sacrimoni, taking off his jailhouse togs, donning a suit and tie, and petitioning the court for permission to attend an event he'd waited his whole life to see.
He was allowed six hours of freedom, including transportation time, provided he paid for security screening at the wedding and reception and spent all six hours within sight distance of federal agents. Of course Johnny agreed. What else could he do?
The blessed event started with a metal detector screening at the church that nearly exhausted the gunshot-weakened Tony. It continued with an awkward reception dance between gangsters and agents, and ended with Johnny being prematurely evicted from the cake-cutting ceremony and packed off to jail in tears. (Afterward, Tony's boys mocked Johnny's breakdown as a sign of weakness—a scene that informed Tony's climactic decision to reassert his Alpha Male dominance by beating his muscular new henchman to the floor of the Bada-Bing office, then loping off the to washroom to puke blood in private, twice.)
Are we ever going to see a stand-alone episode of "The Sopranos" again? I'm not complaining; I'm just curious, because this one flowed naturally out of episodes One through Four, all of which have insisted on the baseline ugliness of gangster life, and exposed the anxiety beneath the macho façade of nearly everyone in this line of work (except maybe Paulie Walnuts, who once announced he'd tallied up his major and minor sins, assigned each one a purgatorial value, then resolved to do the time). Written by Terence Winter and directed by actor-filmmaker and regular "Sopranos" helmer Steve Buscemi, this episode zeroed in on a facet of gangster life that's usually acknowledged only in passing: the mostly-hidden social cost of being a mobster.
As we've already seen in "The Sopranos" and pretty much every prior gangster story, the gangster life affords crude freedoms denied to the law-abiding. Mobsters steal and kill, they keep mistresses and cavort with hookers and strippers, they entrap and destroy decent people, and they bribe society's guardians to look the other way. (The wives and girlfriends are bought off, too.) But the gangster's freedom isn't absolute. Besides the obvious downsides (incarceration, death) there are serious, if typically invisible, social penalties. A gangster can't forge honest or meaningful relationships with anyone who's not part of The Life because he can't risk revealing what he really does for a living. (That's why Tony's terrified of losing his gig as a "waste management consultant"—it's not just an easy paycheck, it's his cover story and the source of his health plan and tax forms.) Most of all, the lie envelops the gangster's wife and children, who publicly endorse the breadwinner's facade because if they don't, no one will. But over time, deception becomes self-deception. Six seasons after we first met them, Tony, Carmela, Meadow and A.J. are only now beginning to understand that the world knows their business, and probably always has.
Social-striving mobsters live in constant fear that their veneer of respectability will be torn away and they'll be exposed as parasites. Sometimes they're doomed to be exposed anyway; no matter how circumspect the gangster and his family are, there will still be days when the larger society (represented by cops or prosecutors) feels emboldened to call a gangster a gangster and make everyone connected with the life feel like the pariahs they are. "The Sopranos" has often acknowledged this anxiety in the past, but never as frankly as in Sunday's episode. Except for the prosecutor who fought Johnny's day pass, the government adopted a businesslike attitude toward their arrangement with Johnny—yet somehow the day still felt like a public shaming in black tie. Winter's script deployed these elements without fuss, and Buscemi deepened them with God's-eye view shots that physically diminished the gangsters at key moments (the wedding guests ascending a spiral staircase; Vito getting situated in the motel; Tony puking blood in the men's room.)
But there were missteps. I bought the dramatic necessity of Tony beating down his new henchman—the whole episode built up to that fight—but washroom scene or no washroom scene, I didn't believe he could have thrashed such a strong man in his surgery-weakened condition. (If the muscleman had held back for fear of getting beaten down or killed by Tony's crew, the moment would have been more plausible – and, in light of the crew's opportunism and nonstop yammering about weakness, more complicated.) And while Vito's forced eviction from the closet jibed thematically with the rest of the episode, which was all about the public exposure of lies, it was crudely written and cloddishly executed; "The Wire" handled a similar moment with more imagination and subtlety. (How much you want to bet that series creator David Chase kept the Vito-in-the-closet subplot puttering along for two seasons just so he could force Joe Gannascoli into that leatherman outfit?)
I'm also getting restless during Tony's therapy scenes. Aside from the occasional contrived but amusing one-liner ("Let me ask you right off, is there any chance of a mercy fuck?") they tend not to justify their screen time, much less tell us anything we couldn't glean by paying attention to the images and dialogue (even those are sometimes too emphatic, like the cut from Johnny's skinny daughter saying "Food" to the exterior of Satriale's pork store). I'm also frustrated with Melfi in general, not just because she's content to treat the symptoms of Tony's unhappiness rather than its obvious cause (his criminality), but because the show itself seems to be content with her contentment.
As for the likelihood of Tony going straight vs. reintegrating into The Life, I'll make no predictions. That final beatdown shows that Tony is being tugged back toward the old life (an event presaged by his decision to indulge Johnny's request for a whacking-by-proxy instead of resisting it). But the following scene in the men's room is a reminder of the sacrifices Tony makes to maintain the status quo. This life is literally destroying him; he made his choice, and now he's paying in blood. He falls to his knees and vomits. Then he looks at himself in the mirror with a cocky-scary "I'm back" expression; then a shadow of doubt crosses his face. Then he drops to all fours and vomits again. This is a different kind of cost-benefit analysis—conducted by the body, not the mind.